Battle of the Yellow Ford

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Battle of the Yellow Ford
Part of the Nine Years' War
B Yellow Ford from hill 1.jpg
View along the Yellow Ford battlefield looking north-west
Date14 August 1598
near the River Blackwater, County Armagh

54°24′04″N6°41′10″W / 54.401°N 6.686°W / 54.401; -6.686 Coordinates: 54°24′04″N6°41′10″W / 54.401°N 6.686°W / 54.401; -6.686
Result Irish victory
O'Neill Clan.png Irish alliance Flag of England.svg English Army
Commanders and leaders
Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone
Hugh O'Donnell
Hugh Maguire
Sir Henry Bagenal  
Sir Calisthenes Brooke
Thomas Maria Wingfield
Maelmora O'Reilly 
~5,000 ~4,000
Casualties and losses
~low ~1,500 killed
~300 deserted

The Battle of the Yellow Ford (Irish : Cath Bhéal-an-Átha-Buí) was fought in western County Armagh, Ulster, in Ireland, near the River Blackwater on 14 August 1598, during the Nine Years War (Ireland).

Irish language Goidelic language spoken in Ireland and by Irish people

Irish, also known as IrishGaelic, is a Goidelic language of the Celtic and Indo-European language family, originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is spoken as a first language in substantial areas of counties Galway, Kerry, Cork and Donegal, smaller areas of Waterford, Mayo and Meath, and a few other locations, and as a second language by a larger group of non-habitual speakers across the country.

County Armagh Place in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom

County Armagh is one of the traditional counties of Ireland and one of six counties that form Northern Ireland. Adjoined to the southern shore of Lough Neagh, the county covers an area of 1,326 km² and has a population of about 174,792. County Armagh is known as the "Orchard County" because of its many apple orchards. The county is part of the historic province of Ulster.

Ulster province in Ireland

Ulster is a province in the north of the island of Ireland. It is made up of nine counties, six of which are in Northern Ireland and three of which are in the Republic of Ireland. It is the second largest and second most populous of Ireland's four provinces, with Belfast being its biggest city. Unlike the other provinces, Ulster has a high percentage of Protestants, making up almost half of its population. English is the main language and Ulster English the main dialect. A minority also speak Irish, and there are Gaeltacht in southern Londonderry, the Gaeltacht Quarter of Belfast and in Donegal, where 25% of the total Gaeltacht population of Ireland is located. Lough Neagh, in the east, is the largest lake in the British Isles, while Lough Erne in the west is one of its largest lake networks. The main mountain ranges are the Mournes, Sperrins, Croaghgorms and Derryveagh Mountains.


The battle was fought between the Gaelic native Irish army under Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Hugh O'Donnell, and a Crown expeditionary force from Dublin under Sir Henry Bagenal, commander of the Royal Irish Army.

Gaels Ethnic group

The Gaels are an ethnolinguistic group native to northwestern Europe. They are associated with the Gaelic languages: a branch of the Celtic languages comprising Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic. Historically, the ethnonyms Irish and Scots referred to the Gaels in general, but the scope of those nationalities is today more complex.

Hugh ONeill, Earl of Tyrone Irish earl

Hugh O'Neill, was an Irish Gaelic lord, Earl of Tyrone and was later created The Ó Néill. O'Neill's career was played out against the background of the Tudor conquest of Ireland, and he is best known for leading the resistance during the Nine Years' War, the strongest threat to English authority in Ireland since the revolt of Silken Thomas.

The Crown forces marched from Armagh town to re-supply a besieged fort on the Blackwater, and were attacked and routed with heavy losses.

Armagh County town of County Armagh in Northern Ireland

Armagh is the county town of County Armagh and a city in Northern Ireland, as well as a civil parish. It is the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland – the seat of the Archbishops of Armagh, the Primates of All Ireland for both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. In ancient times, nearby Navan Fort was a pagan ceremonial site and one of the great royal capitals of Gaelic Ireland. Today, Armagh is home to two cathedrals and the Armagh Observatory, and is known for its Georgian architecture.

Background context of the battle

In 1597, Lord Deputy Thomas Burgh built a new fort on the river Blackwater five miles northwest of the government's garrisoned town Armagh. The river Blackwater defines the border between counties Armagh and Tyrone. The Blackwater fort was intended to facilitate later military excursions into county Tyrone. Soon after it was built, Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, laid siege to it. In 1598, with the besieged garrison still intact but running precariously low on supplies, the Dublin government debated at length whether to abandon the fort, for the reason that its location was too far into O'Neill's home territory to be sustainable. It was located six and a half miles from the O'Neill headquarters at Dungannon. Sir Henry Bagenal, who was very experienced at fighting Ulstermen, argued the fort should be re-supplied, and eventually won the argument in early August 1598, and was appointed to lead the expedition. About 4,000 troops were assigned to the expedition, a large number in those days.

Siege military blockade of a city or fortress

A siege is a military blockade of a city, or fortress, with the intent of conquering by attrition, or a well-prepared assault. This derives from Latin: sedere, lit. 'to sit'. Siege warfare is a form of constant, low-intensity conflict characterized by one party holding a strong, static, defensive position. Consequently, an opportunity for negotiation between combatants is not uncommon, as proximity and fluctuating advantage can encourage diplomacy. The art of conducting and resisting sieges is called siege warfare, siegecraft, or poliorcetics.

Dungannon town in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland

Dungannon is a town in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. It is the third-largest town in the county and had a population of 15,889 at the 2011 Census. The Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council had its headquarters in the town, though since 2015 it has been covered by Mid-Ulster District Council.

According to the Annals of the Four Masters : "When O'Neill had received intelligence that this great army was approaching him, he sent his messengers to O'Donnell, requesting of him to come to his assistance against this overwhelming force of foreigners who were coming to his country. O'Donnell proceeded immediately, with all his warriors, both infantry and cavalry, and a strong body of forces from Connacht, to assist his ally against those who were marching upon him. The Irish of all the province of Ulster also joined the same army, so that they were all prepared to meet the English before they arrived at Armagh." Although historians don't have good records about the number of troops O'Neill had on battle day, an estimate of roughly 5,000 troops is generally accepted; i.e., the number of O'Neill troops was about the same and modestly larger than the number on the opposing side.

<i>Annals of the Four Masters</i> chronicles of medieval Irish history

The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland or the Annals of the Four Masters are chronicles of medieval Irish history. The entries span from the Deluge, dated as 2,242 years after creation to AD 1616.

Bagenal's troops marched from Dublin to the Armagh without incident. But O'Neill's troops had not been idle. They had dug trenches along and across parts of the road and countryside between Armagh town and the Blackwater fort, and blocked the pathways with felled trees, and set up brushwood breastworks, etc. The countryside had some bog and woodland, and was hilly with drumlins, but some cornfields were also in the area. In Armagh town, Bagenal was aware that the five miles separating him from the besieged fort were laced with ambush-supporting works. But in common with most other crown commanders of the day, and based on his own experience, he was confident that he would be victorious in any pitched battle with O'Neill's forces. The main obstacle to true victory, in Bagenal's view, was that the enemy declined to engage in a decisive battle. As his troops set off with drums beating, he expected the troops would be able to handle the hit-and-run tactics they would be subjected to. With the road impassable, Bagenal marched along a series of low hills to the right of the River Callan.

Breastwork (fortification) fortification

A breastwork is a temporary fortification, often an earthwork thrown up to breast height to provide protection to defenders firing over it from a standing position. A more permanent structure, normally in stone, would be described as a parapet or the battlement of a castle wall.

Bagenal, the son of Nicholas Bagenal, who had settled at Newry and later achieved high office, was army commander in chief (marshall) of Ulster for a decade (beginning in 1587 as his father's deputy), in which role he had acquired extensive experience fighting against the Maguires and other "traitors" before the O'Neill rebellion broke out. He had a bitter personal grudge against O"Neill, who some years earlier had eloped with his sister Mabel. He was intimately familiar with county Armagh territory. On this occasion he commanded 3500 [1] footsoldiers, more than half of whom were Irishmen but also included a contingent of footsoldiers recently arrived in Dublin from England, and also a core group of footsoldiers from England that had more Irish experience. Bagenal's footsoldiers were armed with the standard weapons of the day, pikes and muskets. Standard formation when marching through dangerous territory was musketeers in outside columns, able to fire out, and pikemen in the inside columns able to relieve the musketeers in the event of a sustained charge against the column. Bagenal also had 350 cavalry and several pieces of artillery. The cavalry were commanded by Sir Calithenese Brooke. A troop of cavalry was commanded by Maelmora O'Reilly, who was deemed to be lord of East Breifne by Queen Elizabeth I. This was not recognised within the kingdom and Maelmora had no authority there as it had risen up in rebellion. Maelmora was the eldest son of Sir John O'Reilly, Lord of East Breifne, who had died fighting against the English in 1596. Maelmora was slain at Yellow Ford. [2]

O'Neill's troops were nothing like previous Irish armies, as possibly 80 percent of his men were armed with calivers, which were a lighter and more portable version of the standard musket. These were supported by light pike and targeteers provided close protection to Tyrone's skirmishers. O'Neill had several English and Spanish military advisors in his pay, as well as many Irish officers with continental experience, who trained his troops in the use of modern weaponry. However, this was not a slavish copy of pike and shot deployed by the English. O'Neill developed a hybrid army which maximised his infantry's firepower while maintaining the key Irish advantage of mobility. [3] The earl had less success modernising his cavalry, who carried their spears over-arm, either thrusting or throwing them at close quarters in the traditional manner.

The battle

The English Crown forces were organised in six regiments—two forward, two centre, and two rear, and with cavalry at centre. As soon as they left Armagh, they were all harassed with gunfire from Irish forces concealed in scrub woods on both flanks of the column. While fire poured in from the sides no resistance was met at the head of the column as it pushed across the River Callan. As the lead regiment, led by Sir Richard Percy, pressed on dangerous gaps began to separate the units of English infantry. The impetuosity of the leading English troops was later remarked upon as they marched 'as if win the goal in a match at football'. [4] As Percy pushed ever further he crossed a bog ford, the 'Yellow Ford' from which the battle takes its name. It was nothing more than an area of raised ground allowing access across the bog to the following hills. Bagenal's following regiment lagged behind. Burdened with the stores and artillery, one of which, a saker (a field piece weighing 2,500-3,000 pounds) drawn by oxen. It was getting bogged down 'every ten score end' [5] and eventually got stuck in the bog ford, causing Bagenal to abandon it.

Percy's regiment crossed onto a second hill (modern-day Drumcullen), where he discovered a long earthwork bank and trench cutting across their line of advance. The five-foot high bank was crested with thorns and sat behind a five-foot deep trench, the whole thing running a mile through the landscape. Pestered with fire from his flanks, Percy took his regiment across the barrier, led by the forlorn hope under Captains Turner and Leigh. The trench was not defended and O'Neill made no effort to stop them. Reaching the top of the third hill (modern-day Mullyleggan) Percy could see the Blackwater Fort. The beleaguered garrison could see their relief and threw their caps in the air 'hoping to have a better supper than the dinner they had that day'. [6] But their hopes were stillborn. The rear regiments under Captains Cuney and Billing had been checked crossing the River Callan and the rest of the army had stalled on the hill overlooking O'Neill's trench. O'Neill committed more troops to attack Percy's men, forcing the English shot in to their pike stand. This allowed O'Neill's shot to rake the compact body of troops with close-range gunfire, ,and his horse and swordsmen started to open gaps in the pike defence. Under severe pressure Bagenal ordered Percy to retreat back across the trench but this was impossible to so in any order and the lead regiment was routed. The trench cut off Percy's men from their supporting cavalry. Moreover, it impeded the English infantry's retreat as 'falling over one another they filled the dyke and were trodden down where they fell'. [7] Marshal Bagenal led his men to second the broken infantry, but as he descended the hill towards the trench he was shot through the head, killing him instantly. The counter-attack continued but it was badly mauled by O'Neill, sending them spilling back across the trench.

Command of the army was taken over by Thomas Maria Wingfield. Matters went from bad to worse, as an English soldier attempted to replenish his supply of gunpowder directly from the powder store in the supply train. Thrusting his hand into the powder he still had his lit match from his firearm. Two to four hundred pounds of powder exploded in the English central position, killing and wounding scores and enveloping the hill in a shroud of cloying smoke [8] . This disaster within the English ranks only encouraged the Irish to redouble their attacks. With little option, Wingfield ordered a retreat to Armagh. But the commander of the rear (formerly the van) either didn't get the command or refused to obey it, or was unable to execute an orderly retreat and decided to launch a foolhardy second counterattack across the trench. O'Neill quickly countered and crushed Cosby's attack. Only quick action by Wingfield and the English horse saved 500 men from the ensuing slaughter, but Cosby was taken prisoner by O'Neill's men.

Last vestiges of the scrub woodland which flanked the Yellow Ford battlefield Scrub bushes on the Yellow Ford battlefield.jpg
Last vestiges of the scrub woodland which flanked the Yellow Ford battlefield

The rest of the crown forces had to struggle their way back to the Armagh garrison. The Irish moved to cut off the English retreat at the River Callan, but point-blank fire from the columns remaining cannon checked the Irish advance. Finally, the shattered English force caught a break, as Irish fire slackened. The Irish shot had exhausted their immediate supply of gunpowder. Captain Cuney later noted that if O'Neill's pike had come on as his shot none of his men would have survived. [9] After recrossing the River Callan, the English army returned to Armagh.

Crown forces lost about 1,500 killed at the battle. [10] This included 18 "captains" or officers dead. Three hundred soldiers deserted to the rebels including two English recruits. Out of 4,000 soldiers who had set out from Armagh, just over 2,000 reached the town after the battle. Those who did reach Armagh were virtual prisoners inside. The cavalry broke out and dashed south escaping the Irish. After three days negotiations, it was agreed that the crown troops could leave Armagh as long as they left their arms and ammunition behind them and that the garrison of the Blackwater Fort capitulated. The most severely wounded English soldiers were left in Armagh cathedral, many with severe burns suffered in the powder explosion, but O'Neill agreed to tend to them and have them transported to Newry when they were fit to travel. [11] According to the English, O'Neill's forces lost perhaps 200 to 300 killed in the battle, though that is likely to be an overestimate to mitigate the extent of the disaster. [12] In light of the battle's result, the court at London undertook to greatly and rapidly increase its military forces in Ireland; and simultaneously many in Ireland who had been neutral on the sidelines undertook to support O'Neill's confederation of Irish lords. Thus the ultimate outcome of the battle was an escalation of the war.

Sources and references

  1. The number 3,500 comes from Captain Charles Montague's Report of the Accident at Armagh, a report dated 16 August 1598. For other contemporaneous reports giving numbers in the range 3,000 to 4,000 see "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-12-18. Retrieved 2008-11-18.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  2. Hibernian Magazine, Volume 2, 1861 - The O'Reillys at Home and Abroad
  3. O'Neill, The Nine Years War, 1593-1603, Chapter 7.
  4. O'Neill, The Nine Years War, p.75
  5. CSPI 1598-9, p. 237
  6. O'Neill, Nine Years War, pp 75-6
  7. O'Neill, Nine Years War, p. 76
  8. Hayes-McCoy, Irish Battles, pp 124-5
  9. O'Neill, The Nine Years War, 1593-1603, p. 77.
  10. For many contemporaneous sources about the numbers killed, some of them inconsistent, see "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-12-18. Retrieved 2008-11-18.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link), chapter VI.
  11. O'Neill, 'Like sheep to the shambles', Irish Sword, no. 126, p. 376
  12. The 200 to 300 figure is the estimate of Lieutenant William Taaffe, reported on 16 Aug 1598. See "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-12-18. Retrieved 2008-11-18.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link), page 351.

See also

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